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An Early Attempt At Flight: Hot Air Balloons

An Early Attempt At Flight: Hot Air Balloons

Imagine living in the 1700s and discovering that someone has found a way for people to fly up into the sky! Before we had airplanes, hot air balloons were used as a method of early flight. Much before the hot air balloon was developed in Europe, a similar concept originated in China as early as the third century. These Chinese inventions did not lift people, but they did use paper balloons with a heat source below to help them fly.

In French, hot air balloons are actually called montgolfiers, after the two brothers who invented it. Another tradition is the champagne flight. In the early times, French peasants were quite terrified when they witnessed a massive balloon falling out of the sky onto their lands. According to some legends, they even tried to attack the balloon with their pitchforks! To calm them down, the balloon pilots gave them the champagne that they had originally meant to use as a celebratory toast after the ride. In memory of that, adults still often have a champagne toast after a successful balloon ride.

Several centuries later, two brothers in France named Jacques-Etienne and Joseph Michel Montgolfier started working on the same type of concept. They first only made a very small balloon from a length of silk. Next, they created a balloon from paper and cloth, and used fire below to make it rise. In that same year, on September 19, 1783, the Montgolfiers had created a balloon large enough to carry passengers. However, they were naturally a bit nervous. What if the balloon crashed or exploded? Instead, they decided to place animals into the balloon instead, and settled for a rooster, a duck, and a sheep. There was a lot of ceremony around the launch of this first venture into flight, and they released the balloon at Versailles Palace, with Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI in attendance! The farm animals were airborne for around eight minutes before they landed again.

After this success, the next flight on November 21 carried two men: François Laurent d’Arlandes, and Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier. Once again the flight was successful! For the first time in history, there was a way to launch humans into the air and control their flight. Later, additional flights were tried. Another milestone was marked when people crossed the English Channel by hot air balloon.

Much has changed since the Montgolfiers’ first balloon flights. Back then, they would fill the balloon’s basket with straw, so they could continue to burn a fire while the balloon was in the air. Today, people use a burner with propane as a fuel source. In the 18th century and even today, hot air balloons are often seen as a novelty. When hot air balloons first began to be popular, scores of people would turn up to see a balloon being launched. Hot air balloons also fulfilled some practical purposes, such as military usage. Balloons today are mostly used for sport or recreational purposes.

In 1999, a couple of people completed a full tour around the Earth by hot air balloon. Worldwide, there are a number of hot air balloon competitions, festivals, exhibits, and even a few museums. A lot of companies also offer hot air balloon rides for paying customers. The designs of the balloons might have changed – today they even incorporate cartoon characters – but the main scientific principles remain the same. Hot air ballooning in modern times still holds on some of its original roots.

If hot air ballooning has caught your fancy, why not check out some of the fun and informative resources below? You will find information on the history of hot air balloons and the Montgolfier brothers, as well as the science behind how hot air balloons work and tutorials for making one of your own!


First Manned Flight


How Does it Operate?





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